The level of nutrition newborn calves receive is absolutely vital to their health, their short and long-term growth, their welfare and, ultimately, to a whole host of other important markers. Historically, dairy calves have been limit-fed milk and calf milk replacer (CMR) at about 10% of bodyweight, as farmers hoped to decrease feeding costs, stimulate early rumen development and increase starter intake. However, feeding larger amounts of milk or CMR, pre-weaning, helps calves reach breeding size earlier, which decreases the age at first calving and associated costs. Increased growth rates enabled by higher amounts of milk also lead to greater lifetime milk production. And, when calves themselves have access to feed ad libitum, they consume milk at levels close to 20% of their bodyweight in small, frequent meals throughout the day. But how best to get calves the additional milk they want and need has been a problem for many farmers due to labour costs and other ongoing management issues. Automated feeders, however, simplify the task of offering more milk in more meals. In their paper, "Advancements in Automated Feeding for Calves: Where We Are Today and Where We'll Be Tomorrow," M.A. Steele, et al. (2015) review the existing literature on automated systems in an effort to determine the advantages and disadvantages that come with this technology. They found that the current and long-term advantages they provide far outweigh the possible drawbacks.
Steele et al. found that automated feeding technologies provide many animal welfare advantages. These include calves having more control over their own feeding, improved data collection paving the way for more individualised feeding, and the ability to detect illness and develop therapies for treatment, including individualized nutritional management strategies. While automated feeding systems can be a costly investment, they emphasize that many calves can be fed by one feeder. It's true that this brings up possible issues with group dynamics and competition for access to the feeder. But, they discuss a variety of management techniques that would reduce the impact of these issues. Non-nutritive sucking, also known as cross-sucking, can also occur when calves are housed in groups. However, as with other potential drawbacks to automated feeding, proper management techniques provide the solution.
To learn more about this research, have a look at our full Technical Note, or take a look at the original research: M.A. Steele, J. Rushen, and A.M. de Passillé. Advancements in Automated Feeding for Calves: Where We Are Today and Where We'll Be Tomorrow. WCDS Advances in Dairy Technology. Volume 27: 49-59. (2015)